Can the Electric Grid Handle Fleets of Shared, Electric and Autonomous Vehicles?

By the 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program (October 30, 2017)

We are rapidly approaching a future dominated by shared, electric, and autonomous vehicles. These three transportation revolutions may be our ticket to slow climate change and improve air quality, all while making transportation cheaper, more convenient, and more equitable. But careful planning on the part of electric utilities and regulators will be needed to ensure this transition goes smoothly. Electric utilities and regulators can get started now by tackling some key questions:

· Are the charging needs of today’s electric vehicle (EV) owners the same as the charging needs we anticipate for shared EV fleets?

· How can we simultaneously plan for shared EV fleets, autonomous EV fleets, and shared autonomous EV fleets?

· What co-benefits can EV charging networks deliver?

From personally owned to shared EVs

Today our first step is to enable adoption of personally owned, human-operated EVs. This will require increasing the number of EV chargers at high-traffic locations such as transit stations, workplaces, shopping districts, and at multi-family housing units. However, a shotgun approach is unwise and charger networks must be built out strategically. Utilities should be involved in discussions regarding placement and timing of charger deployment to ensure that increased charger load does not overtax the electric grid. Property developers, city planners, and other stakeholders should work together to reduce the risk of stranded assets, that is, chargers that are underutilized or likely to become rapidly obsolete. While these risks should not deter EV charging development entirely, common sense solutions, such as applying open standards for EV chargers so that one charger can serve cars from all manufacturers, will reduce the risks of stranded assets.

The next step is to consider the anticipated needs of shared EV fleets, and how these needs will differ from personally owned EVs. Shared EVs, like other service vehicles, will likely travel five to 10 times more miles each day than their personally owned counterparts. Shared EVs may need to charge a few times a day, even as battery capacity and maximum ranges increase. Although much of fleet charging can occur on the fringes of high-traffic areas, reducing the costs of infrastructure investments, fleet operators will likely depend on a mix of fast-charging options for when trip demand is high, and slower-charging options during off-peak hours. This means that fast chargers installed in residential and commercial zones will likely still have value in years to come. The useful life of these chargers can be extended if they are built with upgradable infrastructure.

Adding Automated Vehicles to the mix: A Question of When and Not If

There is lively debate about when widespread adoption of driverless technology will occur. Yet there is growing consensus that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will ultimately replace human-operated vehicles.

When AVs can charge themselves, this raises several implications with respect to EV charging. First, the business model for charging infrastructure will change. Operators of conventional gas stations and first-generation EV charging sites generally make money not by selling fuel, but by providing ancillary goods and services to human drivers. It is possible current business models may need to switch from relying on sales of chips and soda to providing services the AVs themselves will still desire, such as cleaning, maintenance and servicing. These services may be able to provide additional potential revenue streams for guaranteeing returns on EV charging station investments.

Maximizing the value of EV charging infrastructure

Well-designed charging networks will not only flexibly serve the needs of personally owned, human-operated EVs, shared EV fleets, and shared, autonomous EV fleets alike, but can also deliver co-benefits. For instance, charging networks can adopt and advertise dynamic pricing structures that reward users for charging at times and in locations with low demand and excess capacity. This increase in system utilization may make it easier to integrate renewable, but intermittent, energy sources such as wind or solar power into the grid.

The bottom line

Shared, automated and electric travel has far-reaching potential to revolutionize transportation and energy. But, like any revolution, realizing this potential requires us to consider what comes next. Guiding the long-range development of EV charging networks, and other critical infrastructure, will require a holistic approach to strategically transition the needs of today’s travel to enable a brighter transportation future tomorrow.


This blog post was originally posted online at Medium. 

Posted in Blog, Future Cities, Sustainable Transporation.